By Donald Schell
The Easter Gospels (like the Christmas Gospels) are shot through with fear. Why do angels keep telling us not to be afraid? Don’t they know there’s danger out there?
In the early darkness after San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake, my wife and I stood on the roof of our house looking out over the Marina district. Our son and daughter huddled against us. We were very quiet, and the city was in blackness. The power had failed. In the darkness we watched a five storey apartment building explode and collapse in on itself. Huge flames from the fire lit the dark evening. Just as in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, where wildfire destroyed much more of the city than the earthquake had, broken water lines rendered fire hydrants useless. Old photos of San Francisco’s ashes after 1906 haunted me.
We sighed our relief when an arc of water shot up from a fire truck. High-arching plumes sparkled red in the firelight. Generator-driven searchlights lit the building and the water. From our battery-powered emergency radio we heard that firefighters had run hoses from a fireboat ashore to a pumper truck. The newsman said this was what they’d done in 1906, but confidently claimed that this time the seawater would make it easy for the firefighters to beat the fire. We watched and listened. As the newscaster’s calm voice assured us the Marina fire was under control, the arc of water faltered and stopped. The searchlights went dark. Flames surged higher. For a few minutes the newsman talked on of other disaster response areas.
Abruptly he stopped what he was reporting; perhaps someone had handed him a note. We heard his tight, measured voice say, “The Marina fire appears to be out of control again.” Twice, then three times, we heard the same premature announcement and each time the resurgent fire’s threat felt bigger.
Our nine-year old son, until that moment the bravest and most stubbornly independent kid I’d ever known, leaned into me for safety and took my hand. “Dad, is the fire going to come this way?”
“I don’t know.” I answered. I didn’t know. It was a still evening, a moment of dead calm in our windy city. But the weather could change quickly. What else could I say? “We’ll watch after you’re in bed. If the fire stays out of control, mom and I will take turns, and if we even think it might spread and come this way, we’ll get us out of here.”
“Will the house burn down?”
We watched quietly for an hour as firefighters got the fireboat to truck connection working. Gradually with plenty of water, they really did contain the fire. We couldn’t see flames any longer, just a glow from where the building had been. It finally seemed safe enough to kiss the children good-night, to hope for another day, to sleep in the stillness and listen for the Spirit telling us that we were not alone.
In the long nightmare after 9/11 we didn’t know how to stand together as leaders’ voices told us how very alone we were, that our lives and homes and way of life were all in danger, that we could lose everything and needed to be afraid. To hold fear at bay, our country needed to unleash carpet bombing on Afghan and Iraqi villages, we sent over thousands of American troops and have now lost more Americans fighting the war than were killed in the terrorist attacks, and we’re not counting Iraqi dead. Our safety has been the rationale for using torture to gather intelligence of coming terror threats from all those frightening places outside our borders where people hate us and want to destroy our way of life.
By 2008 Franklin Roosevelt starts to sound like a theologian or a prophet, ‘We have nothing to fear except fear itself.’ In fact Roosevelt’s words make a decent summary of the Resurrection Gospel. The resurrected Jesus returns to deliver us from our double addiction to fear and to safety.
A day or so after 9/11, an Israeli friend who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area said several people asked him how he managed to make his commute across the Bay Bridge – didn’t he know that it might be the next target? My friend’s simple answer? “I grew up in Jerusalem.”
My friend had it right. After 9/11, I heard familiar Bible texts challenging us in a new way. They were inviting us all to grow up in Jerusalem. Jerusalem of two millennia ago, like today’s Jerusalem, was a loved holy place with constant threats, fears, and frequent experience of death. After 9/11, bald, brazen voices of the prophets assured the people that life was more than death, pillage and famine. The prophets spoke their hard comfort to people who had lost everything and wondered where God was, to frightened people who had survived imperial armies’ raping and murdering rage, to survivors who had seen their homes and fields burned, their livestock slaughtered and left to rot — people who had lost everything and wondered where God was.
The prophets’ message was beyond politics. They saw the threat to their nation and called the people and rulers to justice, to care for the poor, to loving mercy and to walking humbly with God. Our leaders (like the royal leaders of ancient Israel) caution us that safety comes at an inevitable cost: in extraordinary times our historic commitments to freedom and human dignity demand holding prisoners indefinitely without charges and torturing suspects to protect us from terrorist threats. Then they assure us that without their leadership terrible things would have happened. It’s no stretch to hear biblical prophets (who rejected the power of chariots to keep people safe) jeering at metal detectors and border walls, just as they would have ridiculed President Clinton for insisting after the Oklahoma City bombing that we should, ‘tell the children of America that this will never happen again.’
Denial and wishful thinking aren’t what we need to hear. Angels and Jesus don’t tell us “Do not be afraid because nothing bad will ever happen again.” Our Easter Jesus appears to disciples hiding in a locked room in fear for their lives. After he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ the world was still dangerous, but Jesus sent his friends into that dangerous world to preach and share forgiveness. Like the prophets, like my friend who grew up in Jerusalem, like the disciples, can we listen for a simpler promise? God stands by people, unwaveringly faithful, still blessing life. Jesus says to his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity, building community through music, and making liturgical architecture a win/win for building and congregation. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.